Friday, March 31, 2006
Learn what doesn’t work If you are doing something new for the first time it is impossible to already know the answer. You need to learn the answer. To discover what works you have to quickly understand what doesn’t work. Therefore, it is important to establish a culture of learning. If the team does not embrace a learning culture they will still endure the same learning process, but it will happen secretly, behind closed doors. This retards learning and it takes longer to reach the final destination.
Learn by doing Teams can very easily get bogged down in philosophical discussions and it is very easy to lose a week while discussing about which path is the right one. The answer is to pursue both paths. Find ways to quickly and cheaply confirm the underlying assumptions that are being made. Run ten or more experiments in a week.
Learn quickly How does a project become six months late? The answer is one day at a time. The team needs to have a sense of urgency about learning.
Concurrent Engineering If the downstream group waits for the upstream group to finalize the design before they start, they will run out of time. By allowing the groups to start concurrently it allows for much more rapid iteration between the groups. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the upstream design does finally reach a point of stability, otherwise the downstream group will not be able to finalize their tasks.
Technology Trigger Points In order to make sure that the design does reach some point of stability the program should use technology trigger points. These are dates that trigger which technology is going to be used. This process allows the team to explore new technology, but also forces the technology to reach a certain maturation point before being incorporated into the product. This helps to significantly de-risk the program.
Parallel Path Design Each program group should carry multiple solutions for as long as possible. By not committing to a design the team gives itself an opportunity to recover if one design is found not to work. Also, parallel path design allows for the designs to be pit against each other in Darwinian competition. This often results in a completely new design that encompasses the best design traits of the other designs.
Find the master craftsman, empower them, and get out of the way Each technology group has a master craftsman who can create elegant, simple, solutions. Their only wish is that they be allowed to do the “real” work and not be bothered with other issues. Find these people, empower them to do exactly what they want to do, and get the heck out of the way. This is a win-win for the program manager and the technical expert.
Create transparency All aspects of the program need to be visible. By putting everything on the table it is easy to find the gaps and either negotiate or apply countermeasures.
Lead from the front Never ask anyone to do anything that you would not do your self.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Innovation is integrally linked to learning. The things that foster learning enable innovation, and the things that inhibit learning stunt innovation. This has some dramatic implications.
Countries that stifle an individual’s ability to create will not innovate as well as Countries that do not. This gives the U.S. a distinct advantage over China.
Countries that allow companies to fail have more innovation than countries that do not. Again the U.S. has a distinct advantage over other countries like France and Germany because of our pro-business labor laws, and financial markets.
The results through learning approach is applicable all the way down to the project level and ultimately to the one on one personal interaction level. In every instance “getting it right” requires an iterative trial and error approach, or learning
The team that iterates these cycles of learning the fastest usually arrives at the best answer (most innovative) the fastest. Therefore, one of the necessary components to innovation is organizational learning.
If you art interested, here’s a neat link to the Society for Organizational Learning.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Go and read the essay here. Essentially what he says is that being best in class will not create sufficient differentiation to drive enough extra revenue to offset the added cost of being best in class.
This is true sometimes.
It depends on the basis of competition in the marketplace for your product. If preformance is not good enough for the average user then there is a distinct advantage to being best in class. For example having a 450mHz computer processer versus a 100mHz processor made a noticeable difference in the operation speed of your computer.
When preformance is good enough being a little bit better doesn't matter because both you and your competition are good enough. This happened in computer chips when nobody could tell the difference between a 800mHz chip and a 1gHz chip.
The little bars on the side of the form change color when you have filled in the field. It is just a clever way of ensuring that all the fields get filled out correctly.
Friday, March 24, 2006
Fixated at first on internal threats, instead of the advancing American army, Saddam later came to believe that Iraq was winning, andcontinued to think so until American tanks reached Baghdad. His own generals were far too scared of him to risk breaking the bad news.
Think this is a far fetched example? Consider this unsolicited quote from a friend of mine:
Things are so [expletive deleted] on this project. I wish I was independtly weathly so that I could tell them what I really think.
As a project manager here are some tips to ensure that you are getting the right data.
1. Set a climate of truth: Talk with your team about the benefit of finding and surfacing issues early and often.
2. Be ready to hear the truth: The truth you really want to hear is not positive and the people who are going to share it probably have not been trained on how to deliver difficult news. If you’ve set an expectation of truth it needs to be reinforced by not shooting the messenger when you get bad news.
3. Get out of the office: Go to where the work is happening. Ask what is going on. Listen more than you speak.
4. Learn how to raise difficult issues safely: The book Crucial Conversations offers a third option between the traditional two choices of ignoring an issue or tackling it with a howitzer.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
To me, this is grassroots innovation at it’s finest. Kids without money (or fancy product development process charts) using their heart and ingenuity to create really cool toys. What “wows” me is the level of detail and craftsmanship. These toys reinforce the notion that cleverness is not a function of fancy training or flow charts. Rather, it is the absence of these things; the coupling of desire, skill, and repetition.
Monday, March 20, 2006
One of the biggest contributors to new product development delays are missed information transfers. For instance, the group can’t get color approval on the molded part because the raw material supplier sent in the wrong material that was to the old specification. The new specification was faxed over, but no one picked it up. Or, the system is not finished because module B is not complete and module B's not finished because it wasn’t released to production until all of module A was complete. Module A, of course, was completed late.
Today’s computer systems have the potential to significantly enable the timely transfer of information. It allows for all known information to always be available and this allows for better decision-making and reduced development times.
The last thing that a CFO is interested in is exploring new ways in which knowledge management systems can help reduce the product development lead times.
Friday, March 17, 2006
In the past I have used internal “experts” to help provide feedback to the team and it has worked very well. Every organization has thought leaders who are well respected for their capabilities. These people also have a passion regarding their field and are usually happy to help to consult as and “expert” on your program.
What I like to do is set up a panel of three to four experts who are not involved in the project and are not in the management chain of anyone on the project. These criteria are important for a couple of reasons. First, you will get a more honest assessment if the person is not personally working on the project because they don’t have a personal stake in the project being successful. Because of this you will get an honest response rather than positive spin about a problem they are involved with. Second, your team will be more comfortable with the feedback if it’s not coming from someone in management. Management feedback will be taken and implemented verbatim, even if it’s wrong.
It is important that the role of the panel is all fun and no work. This means that you need to ensure that all the panel has to do is show up and be experts. Who wouldn’t like that? If there is any work involved people will tend to shy off.
Finally, have the team ask the panel hard questions like: What would make this better? What three things could be improved? What don’t you like about this?
I’ve found that when the panel is set up like this you get honest, constructive feedback that the team is willing to listen to and incorporate.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, investigated the human resource practices and organizational designs of innovation producing organizations, seeking to learn what fostered and what hindered innovation in the U.S. corporation. Our study and Rosabeth’s were done quite independently of each other, in different regions and periods of time, and with different purposes. We were studying leadership; Rosabeth was studying innovation. Yet we and Rosabeth both arrived at similar conclusions in analyzing our perspective cases: leadership is inextricably connected with the process of innovation, of bringing new ideas, methods, or solutions into use.
Monday, March 13, 2006
To know your market, find their problems, and then develop and deliver the best solution in the world is no easy task. If it were half of us wouldn’t have jobs. Rather, innovation is an arduous task. It’s sweating the details. It’s fighting through obstacles. It’s working together as a team, who common goal is more important than any individual’s. It’s willing to learn, willing to fail, willing to try again. It’s the unwavering belief in the product’s success coupled with the unrelenting doubt of fear.
John Wooden, of UCLA Basketball fame, never talked about beating an opponent. Instead he argued that if you perfectly executed all the component details, the score would take care of itself. Companies should treat innovation the same way. Focus on executing the required elements with perfection. If you do this, than the innovative products take care of themselves.
3. It is good to innovate. No, it is good to differentiate on an attribute that drives customer preference during buying decisions. Innovating elsewhere costs money and entails risk but does not create competitive advantage. It might still be worth doing, either to neutralize another company’s competitive advantage or to improve your own productivity, but you would be surprised about the amount of innovation going on in your company right now that serves no economic purpose. Rather it is being undertaken as a form of corporate entertainment, creating the illusion of purpose and meaning while carefully skirting the need to be economically accountable.
Friday, March 10, 2006
Here’s the essence of the article, “The failure to sell drinks will leave the city some $93 million short of the cash and marketing benefits it hoped to receive from the deal, officials said yesterday.” Ouch.
I think there are three important takeaways in this situation. First, pummeling failures does not encourage innovation. Second, you need to manage expectations. Third, start small and profitably and then scale your way to success.
Mayor Bloomberg, as his thanks for trying a novel new way to generate cash for the financially strapped city, was pummeled with a critical piece in the New York Times. How likely is it that another politicians would extend themselves with an innovative way to raise revenue without raising taxes? Granted, this particular situation is a political context, but how often have you seen a program in your company treated in the same manner? What are the odds that someone else would then try the same thing?
Still, it looks like the city may have oversold the deal with projections of the $93 million in cash and marketing benefits. The deal still managed to generate $33 million in cash marketing benefits, but that’s only a third of what was originally promised. Would they have been better to promise $20 million and deliver $30 million?
This leads to the third point: start small and profitable and scale your way to success. There is an organizational learning process required with anything new. The article quotes Kevin Booth, the chief financial officer of the City’s Marketing Development Corporation, as saying, “We were a little bit green, maybe, on the vending business and knowing that it takes electrical outlets and it takes certain traffic.” Yes, vending machines do require outlets.
I applaud the city’s initiative to try something new. Hopefully, they can weather this fallout and try again.
More importantly don’t just read it. Do It.
My favorites: 5,8,40,51,82
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
I will agree with Mr. Phillips that innovation requires structure, but I disagree with him about the fact that no protocol exists. There is a tremendous amount of literature regarding successful product development processes. As evidence I submit the book Product Design and Development by Karl Ulrich and Steven Eppinger. This book is a step-by-step tutorial of the fundamental building blocks of product development.
But more importantly, Mr. Phillips is making an assumption that a firm’s failure to innovate is solely a function of capability (not having the right skills sets or knowledge) and not motivation (not having the desire to make the sacrifices required for success).
Having an innovation manual will not make you innovative. It takes organizational will to create the changes necessary to be innovative and even then it may not be enough if the organization does not make the short-term sacrifices required for long-term success.
American car manufacturers did not start making high quality cars until Senior Management mandated it. I guarantee that the engineers knew how to make high quality cars but it wasn’t until it became an organizational priority that they had the traction with which to implement their ideas. Having a six-sigma manual was not the trick that delivered better cars.
Successful innovation is deeply mired in mindset, which is exactly why it’s so difficult. Innovation tools are a necessary, but not sufficient, components of success.
Monday, March 06, 2006
This confusion is the reason why I continue to come back to the three essential questions that a company (or your group within the company) needs to answer:
What problems do we solve?
Who has these problems?
How do we deliver the solution?
Once you figure out who gets what, you have to determine the best way provide that solution. As the provider you must be the best in the world at delivering the solution to the client in order to be chosen over other solutions. This means that you must have a core competency where you are world class in order to win.
What is your core competency?
These [successful] firms approach innovation as an overall business strategy with direct impact on financial stability and growth and have therefore created an environment that not only invites but stresses calculated risk taking as standard procedure
They understand that innovation is a long term business practice, only as effective as the environment that sustains it
The Innovation Tracker asked executives to define innovation. While there was no widely accepted definition, there was however clear agreement about what innovation was not.
It's having a corporate climate that gives people the space to experiment and take risks.Only then can you truly sustain it
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
What amazes me, and maybe it shouldn’t, is how people identify any action with results and therefore unintentionally discount the value of planning.
For example, say you are in charge of buying a machine that seals bags. Method one would be to find out what exactly the requirements are, call around to find the best deal on something that works, and then order the machine. Method two involves checking a couple of web sites and then ordering the equipment.
Under Method one your chances of success are much higher, but it may have taken a bit longer to receive a piece of equipment on site. If you are a great project manager you got it in the same amount of time! With Method 2, you get something quickly but chances are it won’t work right and you will need to implement a corrective action. But, initially, the client will be very pleased at how quickly progress is being made.
So, why are people allowed to operate under Method 2? The answer is due to the delay from the initial request to order something to the actual receipt of equipment. Because there is ample time to find an excuse as to why the equipment doesn’t work like it should (dishonest supplier, the product to be bagged changed, etc.) it’s difficult to identify the root failure mode as lack of planning.
As a project manager your challenge will be to do your homework and deliver results. If your client understands how important planning is then great. If they don’t, you still have to do it, but at the same time demonstrate your progress.